I want to tell you a story, a very old story, that I heard from Laurens van der Post.* It speaks to the necessity of embracing paradox. Of the suffering caused by dualistic thinking, when things are either this or that. When you are either going to succeed or fail. When anything or anyone is either good or bad. When something is right or wrong. Dualistic thinking renders us unable to deal with the difficulties and paradoxes that life inevitably brings. Spending most of my daylight hours painting, I notice that I need to hold the paradox of having structure, alongside the need to be self-forgetting — the fool who jumps in.
This story begins in a recent class in New Mexico. One of the students arrived the first morning, only just making class because of a family emergency. For the entire week she chose to remain silent in her grief, only saying: I cannot speak about it. And so she worked, allowing her hands to give shape to her grief.
At the close of class we have an opportunity to share our work, or say something, or simply listen. Once again, this student told me, before the circle began, that she could not speak. About half way around the circle, I am not sure what prompted me to say: I want to tell you the story of “ja-nee”, the Afrikaans word for “yes-no”. This took us all by surprise, including me, as it did not seem to relate to our closing.
Once upon a time, in a faraway place, there lived a young boy named Francois, and his guide, Mopani. They lived in South Africa on a farm called Hunter’s Drift. It was at the edge of the forest , where you could hear the lions, hyenas, and elephants. The elephants are beloved for their intelligence, memory and personality. Elephants are known as the great gourmets of the bush, and especially love the fruit of the Marula tree. This delicious fruit is abundant, and falls to the ground, where it ferments. Most of the elephants eat just enough of the fruit to get tipsy. But there is one elephant, Uprooter of Great Trees, who is the largest bull that anyone has ever witnessed. He develops the habit of gorging on the fruit, getting drunk, and then stampeding all over the farm. He destroys the crops and threatens the lives of the children. The people have done all the banging on iron utensils and shouting as loud as possible that they can to try to stop Uprooter of Great Trees, but to no avail.
Francois, at twelve years old, had for weeks been under the care of Mopani, a respected village elder. Francois’s mother had left for the city to be with his father, who was very ill. Mopani and Francois were having their usual breakfast before dawn, when they heard a great ruckus outside. Once again, they feared for their crops and the lives of the people were in danger. Mopani said: “Elephants, like men, should know it’s the beginning of the end when they start drinking before breakfast. We must leave our breakfast and see what to do about old Uprooter of Great Trees.”
So they got their guns and went out into the noise and chaos of the Matabele people and a great elephant charging this way and that. When Francois and Mopani arrived, the crowd became silent with relief. This deep stillness was more frightening than all the clamor to Francois, who could only hear Uprooter of Great Tree’s “stomach boiling like a witches cauldron”. He regarded with honor and dismay and the “vast marble elephant” with the long trunk, and the largest ivory tusks he had ever seen. The elephant also became still upon the arrival of Francois and Mopani, his enormous ears making space for sound.
At that moment, Mopani, unruffled, and as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world, said to Francois: “You take him.” And Francois, not knowing how it happened, picked up his father’s rifle, and shot him between the eyes. Uprooter of Great Trees dropped to the ground. Francois was assailed with the strangest feelings . On the one hand, there was an immense well of grief inside him, and on the other, the pervading sense of the power, beauty and dignity of this animal, who just a moment ago, was full of life. He felt no sense of triumph or achievement, as it seemed to have nothing to do with him.
Mopani then spoke to him of the meaning of “ja-nee”, yes-no, “which goes far beyond mere question and answer, positive and negative, or opposites of any kind”. It is a word that captures the unsayable, mysterious and steadfast paradox that infuses all of life, and the heart of each person. The paradox of the magnificence of this animal paired with the difficult choice of death.
After telling this story at the end of our class, the student who could not speak said: Now I can tell my story. There was a deep stillness in the room as we all listened to her tale of being awakened in the night on her ranch by the loud sound of her beloved horse falling to the ground. She went out into the night, and as she approached the barn, she could hear the quiet whinnying, the weeping of the other old horse, for the loss of his friend. She realized she had to make a decision. What was she to do, now that one horse had died, and the other was ill, and filled with grief?
What felt right to the one who knew and loved them most of all, was also excruciating. She knew it was time for the other horse to go too, to end his suffering. Mary Oliver said: The deed took all my heart.
There are times when we are faced with a situation that offers no good choice. We are required to reach deep inside for an answer that no one else may understand. This kind of courage, when integrated into consciousness, can give birth to personal transformation. We “see” not only with our senses, not only with our minds and reason, but also with the “third” way of seeing. The “third eye” view opens in contemplation. It is this mode of apprehending that brings us back to ja-nee, yes-no, to the place that can hold both. Mopani knew that Francois would be facing the loss of his father, and that the experience of the morning would somehow instill in him the confidence to deal with whatever comes, no matter how difficult it may be.
I will end with this note from Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay On Blindness:
“A writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument; everything has been given for an end. This is even stronger in the case of the artist. Everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one’s art. One must accept it. For this reason I speak in a poem of the ancient food of heroes: humiliation, unhappiness, discord. Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so.” — Jorge Luis Borges
How do you experience or hold paradox in your life? I’d love to hear from you.
* A Story Like the Wind, Laurens van der Post